Otitis Externa: Get Rid of Swimmer's Ear

Boy jumping into poolMany swimmers are familiar with earaches that sometimes accompany their water workouts. However, the term "swimmer's ear" may be an inaccurate way to describe this condition. "Swimmer's ear is actually seen more frequently in people who aren't swimmers," says Dr. Daniel Fick, associate clinical professor of family practice at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and staff physician at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. "Anyone who is outside in the wind and rain is susceptible to this type of ear infection. A lot of farmers experience the problem after being exposed to the elements for a long period of time."

Otitis externa, the clinical term for swimmer's ear, is an inflammation of the canal joining the eardrum to the external ear. Moisture in the ear canal causes the problem. "Water and different kinds of bacteria get trapped in the ear canal. The ear canal gets red and sore and swells up from the irritation," Fick says.

Pain is often the first sign of otitis externa. "Pain is the primary reason people see their physician. Some people feel their ear is plugged, while others pull and scratch at their ears because it is irritated," Fick says. "A bad infection can be recognized by pain experienced while chewing, or by discomfort noticed when tugging on the earlobes."

Swimmer's ear is usually treated with antibiotics, either in the form of pills or ear drops. A homemade cure, however, can be mixed from a solution of half rubbing alcohol and half vinegar." Alcohol and water can mix well," Fick says, "so the alcohol combines with water in the ear and then evaporates, effectively removing the water, while the acidity of the vinegar keeps bacteria from growing. Apply a couple of drops of solution in each ear. This is a good home treatment for people with repeat infections."

Fick suggests that those with repeat infections may also want to try blow-drying their ears to make sure all the moisture is out, and using the prophylactic solution of alcohol and vinegar after daily showers. Within a week the ears should be feeling better.

The best way to avoid otitis externa is to keep ears clean and dry. "Wax can frequently build up in ears and trap water," Fick says. Ear plugs are also an option, he adds, but make sure the plugs fit correctly and that hearing is not significantly impaired. Adults should also keep an eye on their children. "Children are probably predisposed to the problem because they don't dry their ears and they don't recognize early symptoms," Fick says. "It's important for kids to be looked at by a physician, especially if they complain of earaches."

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics
Daniel Fick, MD
Professor of Family Medicine